ANALYSIS | All eyes were on Donald Trump during his G7 summit stay in a French resort town, but no one kept closer tabs on the mercurial “America first” president than Emmanuel Macron.
The U.S. chief executive arrived in chic Biarritz during one of the most chaotic and strange weeks of his presidency. Macron might have given Trump, who was liberally lashing foes foreign and domestic, a wide berth.
Instead, the summit’s host played the role of Trump handler — keeping the outburst-prone American leader close while also aggressively pressing him on major differences and even springing several surprises.
“There was a lot of nervousness at the outset, a lot of expectations, a lot of tensions and we heard about a lot of conflict,” Macron said during a joint press conference with Trump Monday at the summit’s conclusion. “And I can say that what we were really keen on was to convey a positive and joint message following our discussions … on several topics.”
The 41-year-old French president, some 32 years Trump’s junior, listed “biodiversity, digital [tax changes] and the economy” as issues on which the two “made headway.” He later talked about several other matters, including U.S-China trade talks and tensions with Iran, but Macron avoid ed climate change until a reporter brought it up.
Macron and other G7 leaders see it as an existential threat; Trump does not regard it as a pressing matter, skipping a Monday summit session on the topic.
The French president brushed off a question about his counterpart’s absence. And it was an earlier remark at the beginning of an extensive session with reporters that Macron showed his approach to Trump.
“While we have a lot of things in common … one thing we had in common with President Trump is we don’t like to waste our time, and we like to achieve concrete results and provide momentum to the work,” Macron said Monday, speaking French, through a translator.
“And as soon as President Trump arrived, with the one-to-one lunch that we had together, I think that [was one of the] most productive and interesting conversations that we have had together,” the French president said. “And from that point onward, we set the pace and kept the ball rolling to be as efficient as possible to the very end. There are a few things that are expected from both our countries.”
In short, Macron has gotten to know Trump and studied him closely. And he knows the best approach is to focus on helping Trump achieve “wins,” or what he can package as such.
“I actually think the summit went pretty well, especially compared to the last two G7s. … I think the tone was very positive and very friendly,” said Benjamin Haddad of the non-partisan Atlantic Council think tank.
“This was a very successful G7 for Macron and his team. And, you know, it’s beyond just the last couple of days. Macron has always sought to find a balance between being very open to his disagreements with President Trump … and at the same time keeping a good personal rapport with President Trump,” Haddad said.
The French leader put that to the test by inviting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the summit on Sunday for a meeting with his own top diplomats. Both Trump and Macron said Monday that Trump was asked to sign off on Zarif’s attendance.
Regardless, it was a brazen move by Macron to broker a meeting between U.S. and Iranian leaders.
“We need to be sure that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon and that there will be no flareups in the region,” Macron said before carefully backing the man standing a few feet to his right into a diplomatic corner a few minutes later.
“At a given point in time, there will have to be a meeting between the American and the Iranian presidents,” he said, then putting his foot on the diplomatic accelerator as if he was driving a Bugatti Veyron on Bizarritz’s tight oceanside streets. “And I would wish that in the coming weeks such a meeting take place.”
Trump stood mostly stone-faced as Macron said the words. But he was later pressed on the matter by a reporter, and faced a moment he had to choose between diplomacy and threatening force. Though the U.S. leader got in one hawkish line, he endorsed what might become known as the Macron plan.
“We can’t let them have a nuclear weapon. Can’t let it happen. So I think that there’s a really good chance that we would be,” Trump said of a meeting with Hassan Rouhani in line with the French president’s timeline.
Trump’s embrace of a possible meeting was a big win for Macron, Haddad said, based on his years-old approach to Trump.
“President Macron has been very open about the disagreements they have. … But he has always been focused on getting the United States back to the table,” he said. “Now, this hasn’t, obviously, always been successful. But he has tried different approaches to how to engage the United States and President Trump constructively.”
Macron’s strategy appeared to work, based on Trump’s gushing words about him as they stood onstage in an auditorium before parting with a hug.
“We’ve never had a better relationship. We had a lunch that lasted for quite a while that many of you got to see. It was the two of us ’— no staff, no anything,” Trump said. “He wasn’t trying to impress his people. I wasn’t trying to impress his people. We were just trying to impress each other.
“And I’ll tell you what, it was the best period of time we’ve ever had and we accomplished a lot. I don’t mean just, ‘Gee whiz, wasn’t that nice?’ He’s a very capable man. He’s doing a great job for France,” the American president said. “He did an incredible job for the G7.”
Still, skeptics noted that at the summit, the U.S. leader contradicted allies like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese officials and even his own aides.
Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, told CNN that Trump again has practiced his version of “a Lone Ranger foreign policy.”
The National Security Action group, which includes former Obama administration officials, issued a statement Monday saying the summit showed Trump is “isolated among friends,” adding: “On just about every issue of importance, President Trump was an outlier, taking positions that serve neither America’s national, nor the collective, interest.”
Still, Macron seemed to have succeeded in keeping Trump more or less satisfied.
“I would say that this was a big step above in terms of unity, in terms of agreement. We have really great agreement on the lot of very important subjects,” Trump said.